Public schools need to be prepared for immigrants' needs, potential

by Paul Heiser

On Board Online • October 23, 2017

By Paul Heiser
Senior Research Analyst

Alex Kumi-Yeboah's son Salah was extremely quiet when he entered kindergarten. The school determined that he needed special education services. Not satisfied, Kumi-Yeboah pulled his child out of that school and sent him to another elementary school in the same public school district. An official from the new school called home one day and asked if it was all right to enroll Salah in its gifted and talented program.

An assistant professor in the University at Albany's School of Education, Kumi-Yeboah told that story during a one-hour presentation on "Understanding and Educating the Immigrant Child" at NYSSBA's 98th Annual Convention & Education Expo in Lake Placid. It's a personal example of how schools can underestimate immigrant children.

Kumi-Yeboah, a native of Ghana, expressed sympathy for school districts, which face unprecedented challenges related to immigrant students and English language learners.

"Who are these new immigrants?" he asked rhetorically. "What characteristics do they bring with them? What educational strategies are effective for which students in which context? What are the factors that both positively and negatively influence immigrant children's academic engagement and outcomes?"

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2050 more than one-third of the nation's school children younger than 17 will be either immigrants themselves or the children of at least one parent who is an immigrant. Among children in the U.S. aged 5-17, 22 percent of children did not speak English at home in 2013.

In 2015, the top five states by the total number of children under age 18 living with immigrant parents were California (4.3 million), Texas (2.4 million), New York (1.5 million), Florida (1.3 million), and Illinois (768,000). These five states accounted for 58 percent of all children with immigrant parents residing in the U.S.

Kumi-Yeboah identified some of the challenges of educating immigrant children. For example, immigrant children are faced with misconceptions about their culture, ignorance about their religion, and stereotypical portrayals of their culture. They may or may not have difficulty reconciling their own culture with the "American lifestyle." Immigrant children also live with the visible and invisible pain of marginalization associated with their accent, lack of cultural familiarity in social settings, or parental employment status, as well as language barriers and cultural disorientation.

But he informed school leaders that immigrants have many positive characteristics that help make their transition easier. They include resilience, or their ability to adapt to constantly changing circumstances and ability to solve problems creatively; optimism; collaborative orientation to learning; the ability to view problems in multiple ways because of their multiculturalism; and their cognitive ability to reason because of their bicultural/language backgrounds.

How might school and district leaders better prepare their staffs to address the changing demographics in today's classrooms? Kumi-Yeboah said leaders must be committed to difficult conversations about differences and change and find ways to capture the opportunities that emerge from a changing student population. They need to be prepared to provide more resources for teachers to engage diverse learners. And they need to provide incentives for teachers to attend professional development workshops.

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